Russian President Putin made headline news across the entire world about his passing an anti-gay law prohibiting displays of homosexuality. The rest of the world has watched for months at the protest, riots and arrests of members in the Russian LGBT community. For London’s King’s Head Theatre’s Artistic Director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who had been watching closely the situation in Russia and exuded dismay and disbelief, Spreadbury-Maher felt compelled that he could do something about it. That’s when he reconnected with London playwright, Tess Berry-Hart to commission a piece formed verbatim from interviews with Russian LGBT community members to offer an inside story of what’s really happening in Russia and the effect this has had on them.
That play is called, Sochi 2014.
There has been a boycott on Stoli and other known Russian vodkas and a boycott against the Winter Olympics. Let me introduce you to the next phase in taking down the political warfare of Russian President Putin. I sat down and interviewed the playwright of “Sochi 2014″, Tess Berry-Hart. Watch out “Boycott Russian Vodka”: This art will be more powerful that a vodka boycott in a handful of gay bars in America. This will reach the entire world and as we have learned from history, art is more powerful than booze.
B.Michael Peterson: To start, the script “Sochi 2014″ were performed earlier in September. What was the response from the patrons/guests?
Tess Berry-Hart: The audience loved it and we had packed houses! Everyone who attended was fully behind the play. The evening was introduced by Adam, who reminded the audience that every single word spoken had been said by a real person – it hadn’t been made up by a playwright, which I think brought it home to all present that this was a drama of real lives. People clapped and shouted their agreement all through the play, and laughed a lot at some of the comedy (yes, there are a lot of funny scenes!) At the end of the shows we handed around the hat to raise as much money as we could for human rights organizations helping gay people affected by the laws in Russia. The response was so good that Adam pretty much decided on the spot that we couldn’t just end there, that we had to put it on properly as a full performance run.
B.Michael Peterson: What’s next for “Sochi 2014″?
Tess Berry-Hart: The King’s Head Theatre in London will be producing “Sochi 2014″ in early February to herald the start of the actual Sochi Olympics and to publicize the protest against the oppressive laws in Russia. Proceeds will go to human rights organisations battling gay injustice there. The play will be constantly edited as the situation develops to ensure that it’s totally up to date as of the day of performance, and we’ll probably even be adding stuff in during the Olympics themselves. Very excitingly, other theatres and producers in the States and the UK have expressed an interest in also putting on the show, so we’re planning a global event with lots of theatres joining in the protest by producing Sochi at the same time. The first scene is set during the actual Olympic ceremony with all the actors coming on dressed in sportswear and waving flags, so it will be a case of art imitating life! I think the theatrical community has been very affected by these events and has wanted to know what they can do – and this is a way of bringing people together people who work in theatre and who would like to help.
B.Michael Peterson: As a playwright myself, I know how daunting writing a play can be. During the research process, what were the most trying and emotional moments? What were the most beautiful and desirable moments as a playwright and an activist?
Tess Berry-Hart: I only had three weeks to do the rough cut of Sochi so I had no time to think about it, and had to plunge straight in! Because the play uses contributions from LGBT Russians – I spent (and am still spending) a lot of time getting in touch with people all over Russia and indeed the world; interviewing them via Skype, email and phone. The most difficult thing is finding people who are willing to talk. Because I had friends and relatives who had worked in Russia (and I’ve been myself a few times) I thought it would be easy, but in fact the community was at first quite closed. People weren’t willing to respond, because they were worried about falling foul of the law, by “promoting” their homosexuality, and plus I was an outsider, unknown to most of them, so how did they know that I could be trusted? So the most effective way was to contact human rights organisations and gay rights organisations in Russia; who in turn approached people who were willing to talk; once a chain of trust was built then people were happy to open up. Hearing their stories was the emotional crux of it for me; hearing how lonely, frightened, or abused some people had been is very hard to take, much less make into a piece of theatre. But there was rare beauty to be found in some of their words, which I put into monologues which are interwoven throughout the play; and surprising hope, and even more surprisingly a lot of funny things.
B.Michael Peterson: Where did you get your theater training and what made you decide on becoming a playwright?
Tess Berry-Hart: I trained at the Royal Court Theatre in London who runs a young playwrights’ course for people under 25. They chose me as one of their delegates to go to an international European festival of young playwrights. While I was there I met so many interesting writers from all over the world, with so many different perspectives and styles, that I realized how lucky I was to be able to work in such an amazing area. It hasn’t always been easy - there’s little money in it and a lot of hard work - but the immediate emotional payoff you get from a live audience seeing and empathizing with what you’ve written is worth all of it.
B.Michael Peterson: How was the process from this script different from the other pieces of work you’ve written?
Tess Berry-Hart: I’ve written a lot of different things – from science fiction novels for teenagers to film screenplays about ghosts and kitchen sink theatrical dramas - so my work is very varied – it helps keep things interesting. However this is my second verbatim play (the first revolved around one of the youngest UK victims of a miscarriage of justice whereby a teenager was put in prison for 8 years for a murder he didn’t commit) so I’ve learned a lot – essentially the discipline of taking notes and footnotes so that you can remember where you’ve got an extract from, who said it, and where. Other plays I’ve written are purely fictional so using the words of real people and personalities is quite different. You have to make sure that the essential truth emerges, and that you don’t start fictionalising or mythologizing people – the beauty of verbatim is that it is all real.
B.Michael Peterson: In your own view, what is the importance of theater for society? What is the importance of this script, “Sochi 2014″?
Tess Berry-Hart: What theatre is essentially about is storytelling, and at heart we are still Stone Age people telling stories around the fireside to each other to try to make sense of the world. These stories (I hope) will make us make sense of Russia. All art helps change society as well as reflect it, and the immediacy of theatre, together with its ability to respond quickly to current events (books and film would never be able to do this as quickly) brings home to people that we can hear, understand and do something about injustice. I hope that “Sochi 2014″ can make us feel connected to our gay brothers and sisters in Russia through hearing the stories that they are telling us.
B.Michael Peterson: What advice do you want to send to the members of the LGBTQI community in Russia?
Tess Berry-Hart: What we are saying to all Russians affected by the law – LGBTQI or otherwise – is that we are with you, you are not forgotten, and there is a whole world of people – both gay and straight – who are thinking of you at this time and supporting you in your fight for equality. It’s clear from the play that this anti-gay law is part of a wider crackdown on human rights across the board, and LGBT people are easy scapegoats. But if even a handful of Russians can get to know and realize how many people want to help across the world it can send them much-needed encouragement. And come the start of the real Sochi Olympics, amongst all the national flags, hopefully the rainbow flag will be raised as well.
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